Australian Dock Strike: A 'Crisis of Leadership'

With a third of the 1400 dockers originally sacked by Australia's Patrick Stevedores still slated to lose their jobs under the new "peace deal" signed with the company, the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) has proved that the May appeal court decision that reinstated the union--widely touted as a "victory"--was really nothing to celebrate. The MUA officials were from the outset prepared to make major concessions, but they drew the line at permitting non-union operations on the docks because experience has shown this would have meant the end of the union altogether. At least for the time being, Patrick has abandoned its attempt to get rid of the MUA, so the bureaucrats will retain their posts.

The attempt to smash the union failed, but the not-so-fine print of the court decision left the door wide open for massive job cuts and the introduction of the "efficiencies" the port bosses sought. Under the agreement reached with Patrick, MUA wharfies will take pay cuts of up to 30 percent. The extensive "changes in work practices aimed at improving efficiency" spell major job losses, in the region of 400 to 600. Patrick is not required to keep all its terminal operations, merely to reopen those it deems "commercially viable." If Patrick decides an operation is not "viable," the wharfies employed there lose their jobs.

Richard Hein, managing director of P&O, the largest employer on the docks (which opened wage talks with the MUA on 25 June) commented that the proposed agreement was "quite close to the broad points of principle which we are looking for" (Reuters, 22 June). Most of the Australasian left, for example the local reps of the International Socialist Organization, have closed their eyes to the fact that the bosses' union-busting schemes, which could have been smashed, remained intact after the court ruling. The settlement with Patrick means fewer jobs, tougher working conditions and lower wages.

Mass Pickets Rock Australian Bosses

In early April, when Patrick Stevedores announced it was sacking all of its 1400 dock workers around the country, thousands of builders, metalworkers and other unionists in Melbourne and Sydney immediately downed tools to join the portside picket lines. One hundred and fifty workers from the Franklin food-chain?s main Victoria warehouse were refused time off by management to support the picket lines, but they just went anyway! The mass militant picket lines in front of Patrick's terminals ensured that no scab labour got through. Around Australia the sentiment of workers matched the mood in Melbourne and Sydney.

Those ships that the scabs did load found it almost impossible to discharge their cargoes, as dockers around the Pacific rim refused to work any ship carrying scab cargo. This action represented a high point in international workers' solidarity in recent years, and was far more effective than recent actions in support of the Liverpool dockers. When dockers and ships' clerks of the Los Angeles International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union refused to unload the Columbus Canada for two weeks, even after the wharfies returned to work, the companies decided to give up on further attempts to discharge other scab-loaded ships destined for American or Canadian ports on the Pacific.

Predictably the militancy displayed by the ranks of Australian labour was not matched by their leadership. From the outset the bureaucrats were anxious not to violate the draconian Workplace Relations Act (WRA), which outlaws primary and secondary boycotts. The international solidarity actions could have been even more widespread and effective had the leaders of the MUA and the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) openly called for blacking Australian exports. The huge outpouring of opposition to Patrick's attempted union-busting provided a magnificent opening to smash the vicious WRA through mass defiance.

But instead, ACTU President Jenny George cravenly reassured Australian business that the last thing she wanted was to see was the spreading industrial actions turning into a general strike. Describing such a course as "kamikaze," George insisted that protests against Patrick be limited to marches and financial collections. MUA President John Coombs eagerly participated in this sabotage, and was relieved that "our plan has worked out all right." (Workers News, 17 April)

By "our plan" Coombs meant preventing the spread of the port shutdowns and other strike action in favour of relying on the tender mercies of the courts. Shutting down the ports was key to building momentum toward mass labour action to smash the Workplace Relations Act. But the MUA had its members continuing to work P&O docks and terminals even after evidence emerged that cargoes caught inside Patrick's terminals blockaded by mass pickets had been transferred to P&O terminals within the same dock area!

Bureaucratic Sabotage & Parliamentary Cretinism

Coombs and George tried to paint Patrick as a rogue employer, and attributed the government's support for its union-bashing to an aberrant conspiracy. The union misleaders' strategy clearly hinged on the hope that elections expected later this year will produce a Labor Party government. In order not to hurt Labor's chances they deliberately tried to dampen down the struggles of the outraged Australian working class.

The results of this parliamentary-cretinist strategy are clear. The workers' counter-offensive has been derailed, and instead of dealing the bosses a serious defeat, the bosses have merely had to take a time-out to regroup. The Workplace Relations Act remains in place for use against the MUA and the rest of the union movement in the future. The union bureaucrats are pushing a Labor government as the solution, but it was Labor that in 1989 crushed the Pilots Union and then in 1992 engineered the destruction of nearly 5000 jobs on the waterfront--both attacks happening with the complicity of the MUA leadership. This same Labor government in 1993 proposed workplace legislation that provided a model for the WRA.

The real issue on the waterfront was not simply one of dockers versus a stevedoring company. It was about who should dictate the terms of working-class existence: labour or capital. The union leaders, seeking to mediate between the two, ended up acting as the bosses' lieutenants. To safeguard their own privileges the bureaucrats are quite prepared to negotiate away the wages and conditions of their members. But concessions only whet the bosses? appetites for getting rid of the unions altogether--and with them, of course, the parasites who lead them.

Toward a Revolutionary Workers' Party!

The existing procapitalist trade-union leadership is an obstacle to the development of political class consciousness among the union membership. What is needed is an alternative political leadership for the unions, one basing itself squarely on the perspective of expropriating the bosses and fighting for workers' power. And that means the struggle to build a revolutionary party, rooted in the most advanced layers of the working class, that is capable of uniting all sections of workers and the oppressed in revolutionary struggle. Only through creating a network of class-struggle militants in the unions, linked together through a revolutionary party, will it be possible to launch a serious political fight for the leadership of the workers' movement.

Such an alternative leadership would have sought to extend the shut-down to every port, and to use the mass support for the waterfront workers to broaden the struggle into a battle to smash the Workplace Relations Act itself. Success in such a campaign would have had wide repercussions and reinvigorated the unions, winning thousands of new members. Within the labour movement it would have resulted in a swing to the left and increased influence for the class-conscious vanguard.

Episodes of heightened class struggle, where previously passive layers of workers begin to take an active role in what before had been seen as merely sectional struggles, have the possibility of escalating into full-blown revolutionary situations. In order to defeat the bosses, their thugs and their scabs, the working class, led by its Marxist vanguard, must prepare to impose its own authority, backed by its own organs of state power. We of the IBT are committed to the struggle to forge a party capable of leading such a revolutionary social transformation--in Australasia and beyond. We are dedicated to the creation of a political order in which the majority of society, rather than a tiny handful of oligarchs, makes the rules, and a world where decisions are made according to human need, not private profit.

27 June 1998
International Bolshevik Tendency (New Zealand)